An Artists Guide to Mental Health

Artists are Different

In the spring of 2010 I was forced to stop working for 6 weeks, and took that opportunity to think about where I was in my career and life. After a season of figuring out what I wanted to do, in 2011 I was accepted into a Masters program in Clinical Psychology, and spent the next three years immersed in the notions of how people think and relate to each other. It was very refreshing and fun. In the third year of my counseling training, I was working for a private practice and was randomly assigned clients on an ongoing basis. By chance, in the beginning of my time in the practice I was assigned 3 working artists, a writer, an improv performer, and a visual artist. As I saw them over the course of the year, I realized that the things we talked about were specific to the experience of being an artist and how that identity affected their relationships and sense of self. One day I was in a session with the visual artist client who was talking about being blocked, how deeply he felt the loss of his inspiration, and how crucial his ability to make work was to his sense of social and personal identity. I was very affected, identifying strongly with his experience and how he described it, and, as we are trained to do, went to see my supervisor (who happened to be gay) after the session to process it. I was surprised when he didn’t understand why the session had such a profound effect on me, and that he didn’t understand what he thought was my extreme response. After a few days reflection, I realized a radical thing I had done when I was younger was coming into play here. //// When I was just beginning my working life as a designer, I consciously chose being an artist as my primary identity, not gender, or race, or any other social construct. This choice has influenced all aspects of my life, and given me a particular perspective on how I view the world and how the world views me. My supervisor’s response showed me that the rest of the world (or the field of psychology) didn’t feel the same way, and to a certain extent was dismissive of the particular issues that come from being a working artist. Seeing my supervisor again after a few days, I tried to explain my responses to the session, and asked him to imagine how he would have felt if he’d had a client who told him a coming out story that related to his own. It was as if I saw a light bulb go off, he got it.
My Story and Work in Perception,
After finishing art school, I pursued a career in clothing design, eventually coming to be owner and designer of a studio and creating a brand. One of the things that fascinated me about the fashion business was how designers, companies and customers decided what they thought was fashionable, how they were influenced to think the way they did, and how they perceived their own and other peoples styles of dress. I was particularly interested in how notions of what color was fashionable from season to season came to be “decided”. My commercial work was influenced not only by fashion trends but also by studies in semiotics, philosophy and psychology. I also produced work and installations intended for art galleries, which were mostly textile based, and had to do with texts and motifs I created, concerning perception, color, and light.
The subjectivity of perception became a theme in my personal artwork, and for the next decade or so I created pieces both for the fashion market and the art world that played with notions of how people perceived color and light, how they described it, and why they thought they knew what a particular color was.
These investigations led me to the world of cognitive psychology, and the study of how and why people think they know what they know. During the last few years before I put my business on hiatus, I read more articles and blogs on psychology than I did on fashion.
I have to tell a little story here, and it has sort of become a foundational story for me, I now realize it is a bridge between my fashion and color work and my psychology practice now. It illustrates the way perception affects our expectations of the group, a realization that our experience is subjective, and that no, they don’t all see the world the way we do.
I was at a friend’s house one evening and we were watching the moon rise, (she has a fabulous view of the lake from her living room.) It was an amazing color, and we spent several minutes trying to figure out what to call it. It started out a burning color, but by the time we decided to say it was more red than orange, it had turned salmon. She went to look up this moon cycle to see whether it had a name, and sure enough, it was called the pink moon. By this time it had gotten much higher in the sky, passing peach, getting paler, to dusty rose and then a sort of light pink. By the time I left, it had pretty much gone normal moon color, that whitish grey that we associate with it when we think “Moon”.
We noticed it because it was not the color we normally think the moon should be, but then, what color is “moon”? Our minds think it, and are surprised when it’s contradicted.
People think the color they see when they think a color is the same one everyone sees. That’s how our minds work, our thinking has to be contradicted before we’ll even question whether we could be wrong. The truth we believe is confirmed because we think everyone else sees the same. Pretty much the definition of a societal norm.
Even something as subjective as color, a simple hue, can be a source of disagreement based on belief. I was once asked to be in a fashion show years ago, the very first Red Hot Chicago, and all the designers were asked to create one red garment for the finale. OK, fine. I sent the garments, and get an irate call saying they can’t accept my piece for the finale because it’s not red.
What?! Huh. So what’s red? Cherry red? Fire engine red? Red Blooded Americans? It turns out that I wasn’t the only one who’s idea of red differed from theirs and they had to accept all the pieces from other designer they’d commissioned and just broaden their idea of what red was. The next year, they didn’t want to have to continue with an open mind, so they sent out a swatch of what they called red. A friend who was a painter visiting my studio, saw the swatch on the wall and asked what it was for. I told her the story, she laughed and said, “Ah they’re so silly, that’s not red, it’s orange.”
So what do you see? What do you believe? What color is this? Is the truth when we all agree?


When I finished my training in 2014, I began to think more seriously about what creating a practice would really mean to me, and realized that it would be extension of my work in perception. This time, as opposed to figuring out how people perceived color, I was looking at how people perceive relationships and interactions, specifically ones that come under the category of “therapy”. Even more nebulous than the perception of color, the perception of the therapeutic moment is delineated by the subjective experience of two or more people in assigned roles that may or may not be in sync with the perceptions of each person in the situation. Just as the confusion that was created by putting out a call for “Red” in the design community drew responses that were various and at odds with the intention of fashion show organizers, the notion of what constitutes a “therapeutic moment” is various and often there is wide divergence between what a client thinks will happen when he or she is engaged with a professional counselor or therapist, and what the trained professional has come to think of and expect when they are performing “therapy”. Everyone thinks they know what color red is, and it seems silly to question the notion. Only when we consider the realization that everyone has different images in their minds of what color “red” is, do we understand how the subjectivity of perception can affect us as well as our relationships. Spending time counseling other working artists made me realize that there is a particular need, and that my special understanding of artists’ problems and situations came from being one. I share their understanding that perception is malleable, and the need to create work or experiences that widen our ability to perceive.

How Tx~Art came to be.
I met a woman, a former curator, at a party in 2014 on New Year’s Day given by a couple in the art community that was full of architects, writers and visual artists. We were talking about what the New Year might bring and she mentioned a show she was developing called “Why Marriage”, looking to create and curate a show that would address the questions of identity, social roles and situations in the changing context of what society currently considers either traditional or modern marriage. She was also looking to explore and define the attendant attitudes and expectations of the participants in that institution. I mentioned being in the training phase of my Clinical Psychology degree and talked about what it was like to actually be seeing clients. “Can you do couples therapy” she asked? I said that I was qualified, although I hadn’t had much opportunity to do it, as my clients were ether single or kids. “Would you be willing to be the marriage therapist at my show? You have a background in the arts as well as the qualifications to engage in therapy”. We talked more about some of her ideas about the show, what it would entail and how I might go about it at an actual event. I decided this was so crazy I just had to do it. I spoke to my supervisor next, as I wanted to not only get his permission to do the piece, (as well as claim the hours for my training record) but also to get his opinion of what it would mean to combine the art and psychology worlds. I presented the idea of the piece to my supervisor as an experiment, not really sure myself of what I expected to happen, and as a one-time experience. I suspect he thought of it as a lark, and didn’t give too much thought to what or how it would proceed, but gave his permission to do it and claim the hours. He didn’t really address how the interaction of the art world and the psychology world might happen or whether it was a good or viable thing to pursue.
The first time the piece happened I was given three chairs and a table in a hallway on the lower level of the center where the show was being held. There was a sign-up sheet on the wall and couples were encouraged to sign their names for a 15-minute session. I began each encounter with a short explanation of what client-centered therapy was, that I had no expectations of the session, and they were free to talk of anything they wished.
What was so startling to me was how readily people were to sit and tell me the most intimate details of their lives. The sign up sheet was quickly filled, and I was busy the entire 4 hours of the opening evening show. I was approached from a variety of points of view, and I cannot truly say if everyone was presenting me with actual stories and situations from their lives, or whether they saw the artifice of the situation and decided to add to it in their own fashion. This event after all, was an art show, and a large number of the attendees were artists or people involved in the art world. That being said, with one exception, I do believe people were talking to me about their real lives, and were actively seeking the kind of contact that happens between a therapist and the client. After creating the piece again at Art Expo in 2014 and 2015, I also came to understand that artists and creatives are particularly drawn to therapy. Of all the people I saw involved in the arts as gallerists, collectors or administrators, and most were trying to work out how to reconcile their drive to create or live as an artist or within the arts with the demands of relationships, work and family.
The thought or action of going to a therapist affects various people in different ways. Some have grown up with therapy as a go to for problems in families sometimes voluntarily, sometimes not. Other people come from ethnicities or backgrounds where the notion of telling a stranger about problems or “family business” is unthinkable. One of the fascinating things I noticed when I did the Tx~Art project at Expo was how much artists and people in the art world wanted to talk, about their own lives, about their relationships, and about what it means to be an artist in the developed world today. When I did the same piece in a place with a general audience, it didn’t work as well, partly because some people had no desire to engage, and others didn’t want to engage so much as be reassured or diagnosed. Artists seemed eager to engage in discussions of meaning and the value of actions and life, and how that affected their lives. There is often a conflict between the cultural or familial attitude about therapy and the creative person’s desire to engage. This adds to situations where the creative person finds themselves with different attitudes about how to engage the world and be in it.

Your Story of Self is Your Personality
Artists are, by just about any definition, open to experience, and their heightened attention is enhanced by interest in the subject at hand. They can also be driven, ambitious, more confident in themselves and less willing to engage in conventional thought patterns and ideas. According to certain theories of psychology and mind, we are the stories we tell about ourselves. Our sense of self develops from a combination of genetics, familial experience, brain structure, personality traits and tendencies, and social experiences, both internal and external.
If the definition of an artist or creative person (an area which is an evolving discussion) is someone who has particular strengths on certain scales of personality, such as openness to experience, conscientiousness, and/or extraversion, is hyper-attentive to surroundings, and engages in divergent thinking, then this person will create a story of themselves that includes their creative talents and their expression.
This personal story will also include attitudes and experiences related to their socio-ethnic status and cultural group. If race is a construct (another evolving discussion) and racial groups and cultures are ethnicities, then the personal stories of people in various ethnic groups include perceptions of their relative place in society, other groups’ attitudes towards them, and their attitudes towards themselves.
The story that all artists tell to themselves and about themselves is a combination of their history, possibility, and familial connections along with their talent, discipline and desire. Their artistic experience is formed by their personal expression, the arrangement of their lives, and the embellishment of their situations.
There is a tension between the telling of the two stories, self-narratives of creativity experienced and talent expressed, and the internal and external experience of being an artist in our modern, competitive and materialistic society. Often these two narratives come into direct conflict with each other, such as when an artist chooses not to pursue the most financially rewarding or acceptable career or when they make personal and creative choices that their family or former associates can’t understand.

Primary Identities
The multicultural psychology movement has given the psychology field a way to think of one’s self-narrative as a description of an identity, and aspects of the story are often experienced as a person’s multiple identities. A primary identity is the way one thinks of one’s self first and most deeply. Most people tend to have gender as primary identity, with men in majority groups often thinking of themselves in terms of their profession primarily as an attribute of status. Minorities in society often identify according to racial identity constructs, externally and internally imposed. Artists and creatives, once they understand the concept and become aware of a sense of a creative self, often identify being an artist as the most deeply felt and important aspect of their being. Evidence of this is everywhere within the artistic community, from the oft heard refrain that artists think differently and “we’re not like them”, or that people who are not creative are “civilians”. Creatives have often experienced the sense of leaving a family, educational environment or community that is not welcoming or understanding of divergent thinking and finding a place, group or profession where people “get” them. Experiencing the appreciation of their talent, attitudes, and way of thinking for the first time can be a strong way for artists to bind themselves to what is considered an artistic identity and loosen the hold of their previous primary identity.
Integrating multiple identities can be a challenge, and every person of multicultural background can attest to its difficulty. Identity also can raise stressful or existential feelings. What is it like to be an artist in Chicago, if you’re from here, or if you’re not. How about being from or working in LA or NYC? Or Buffalo or Baton Rouge? What about being an artist while black? Or being a cis-gender white man? Or being a mother? Understanding how to be an artist and a member of some other primary group is a problem solved (or not) uniquely by each person. Whether they identify as something “other” in this society, or as an exception to identifying with the majority, they feel the need (and have the talent and desire) to solve for themselves how to become a working artist within American and global culture. Among the artists I have spoken with or surveyed, the solutions to this problem depend on the medium in which they practice and the level of acceptance of the type of artist society perceives them to be. Efforts to exist with multiple identities run the range from actively choosing one or another in a professional and/or personal sense, denying one or another in the context of their work, blaming society for their deprivation of expression or their inability to express one or both of their identities, or working to find a way to integrate both their social and internal sense of self with their drive and personal expression as an artist. Explorations on how to to come to a level of self-awareness and social understanding is another way that the therapy I’m proposing can help artists achieve.

Therapy and Career Counseling for Artists
Artists think differently. Some times faster, sometimes more idiosyncratically, often from a different point of view than people who do not consider themselves creative or a member of an artistic profession. This creates moments and situations in their lives that differ from those usually encountered in “normal” or “regular” psychotherapy. Depending on the type of work being done, there is a drive to achieve a personal vision that can come up against societal boundaries, whether it’s within the confines of a project or in the way one conducts ones’ life. An artistic vision can also come up against intimate relationships, and the habit of reducing desires and relationships to binaries, either/or, needs to be rethought. Spouses explain to their partners that no, the project is not more important than them or their relationship, its just all consuming in the moment. Parents explain to their children that they love them, but they also love the work they do, and please don’t make them choose.
As a counselor, I concentrate on the particular needs and sensibilities of the population of creative and working artists, for which I have a particular affinity (they are my people), serving the artistic community as well as society at large. Attitudes society has about artists, (art is just fun, it’s not serious, you can’t get paid for making art, etc.), go along with long held societal views of artists as being more prone to instability, addiction and mental illness. I have a two fold goal with regards to the image of artists in society, first to explode the notion that artists are not dependable, are unstable, “ crazy”, or more prone to addiction. None of those statements are categorically true. I try in pursuing this practice to challenge the misconception that artists are by definition mentally unstable or fragile. One of the problems with challenging this is that it’s the instability that makes news. Yeezy is not helping my cause, even though he has made it his life’s work to encourage and support artists and the creative endeavor. There are lots of talented artists who live stable lives and are extremely creative and productive. You don’t hear about them because they don’t have meltdowns or self-destruct in public. What is perhaps more difficult and insidious is to convince artists themselves that it is possible to be highly creative and mentally healthy. Everyone has a tendency to internalize societal norms, and creatives will often have these negative images of themselves as well, feeling a different kind of focus, inferior or less important than engineers or businessmen (No one is “just an artist”). One of the goals of my practice will be to make an effort to change that social paradigm, and help artists clarify their worth to themselves and their community. This can hopefully create a ripple effect and help society come closer to realizing the important contribution artists make to the world and everyone’s experience of it.
The same impulse to come therapy has led me to counseling people about their careers, how to have one, how to manage it, what sort of choices they can make, and how to wrestle the biggest dragon of them all, how to reconcile making a living with making art. There are a fortunate few who are able to make a living selling their work or actions, but the vast majority of people in the creative professions make some sort of compromise, either in the arts professions themselves, or choosing a job outside of the arts and then making their work on their own time. Because I have spent the last three decades exploring that question from every direction, I have found my clients feel comfortable engaging with me on the issue without feeling judged, or harboring expectations.
Another issue that arises and is particular to creatives is how to handle family commitments and still feel true to one’s self as an artist. This issue is particularly difficult for mothers or primary caregivers, having a child can throw life expectations off kilter, but can also become the event that focuses them and gives them meaning to create work that resonates for them. Navigating parenthood is a particular challenge when artistic inspiration gets called into question by a competing and demanding familial love and duty.

Therapeutic Examples
There are some instances I’ve had in my practice where I’ve felt being an artist made a difference in my sensitivity about the situation, things that perhaps wouldn’t resonate with someone who was not a practicing artist. Talking to a creative who is blocked, and is questioning their identity if they can’t do what they have always done resonates more if the person listening has been in their shoes. Another issue can be relating to the feelings of difference creatives have with their families, communities and environments.
Particular situations I’ve experienced include working on a project that can trigger emotions or memories of trauma, and how to handle unbidden responses. If a person was an illustrator, editor or photographer who had suffered from a traumatic event found themselves on an assignment that forced them to convey with their art the trauma they were recovering from, how should they cope? Do they lose the job because they are triggered? Or is it more important to be able to complete a project, particularly if money is on the line. Often the situation is no one’s fault, but feels unfair just the same, particularly if the creative doesn’t want to disclose their trauma to the people on the job.
A client once related the experience of being in a coffee shop and while standing in line, he was simultaneously: assessing everyone he saw as a character, watching the interplay of several groups of people in the room, and thinking about how to integrate all of it into a project he was working on. He felt that the rest of the world did not experience time and thought the same way he did, and was wondering how to live with the understanding of that difference. Acknowledging this feeling of thinking differently, faster, having awareness without judging yourself or the world that doesn’t get you as either better or worse is an important skill to learn.
Another situation particular to artists is when their work or livelihood is tied up in a project, and they have to be creative on demand. What happens when the flow stops? How does one recover it, and what if it comes back changed? How do issues of self-esteem get managed while being the creative force on a project or collaborative piece? Sometimes it’s necessary to confront demons that have been avoided for a long time in order to find the ability within yourself to come to terms with what sort of internal strength or ability is needed to complete a project

SR- Relaxation, Inspiration & Flow
Stress is an ever-present fact of life for most people at some time in their lives. For our purposes, when I refer to stress, I’m speaking of the physiological response to some event or situation that causes what is known as the “fight or flight response”. This is a thousands of years old evolutionary development that caused us to be able to react quickly when we saw a tiger coming for our group on the savannah. It developed for good reason, and it’s still really necessary, when all sorts of daily situations call for that type of quick response, both physically and mentally. The problem we have in our modern society is that we have difficulty distinguishing from real stress situations and responses and those that may not be life threatening. When that happens, the difficulty comes in not being able to return to baseline, or reset our bodies to a state where we’re not in a heightened response state. When this happens over a period of time, our bodies and minds become “tuned for stress” and we go through life at a low level of fight or flight. The physiological effects of this can cause damage both in the short and long term over time. Some of the long term physical effects of constant stress are increased cholesterol, leading to heart disease, an impaired immune system, and increased inflammation which is linked to a variety of health problems. There are also mental effects, which can be even more important for creatives to consider, since we are depending on the flexibility and quickness of our thoughts and ability to create. Ongoing stress can shorten the attention span, cause automatic or chronic habitual behavior, and cause people to be less likely to notice detail or perceive subtlety.
It can be hard to tease apart automatic stress responses and those that we bring on ourselves. Subjecting ourselves to deadlines, engaging in negative behaviors, allowing ourselves to be in a state of constant worry or anxiety are all ways that mental activity can cause mental and physiological stress responses.
There are 6 basic types of stress, 3 physiological and 3 psychological, as well as 6 basic types of relaxation techniques, which can counteract the response to stress events. Relaxation is a state of reduced tension, anxiety and stress. It can be considered the “baseline” or how we feel in the absence of some sort of stressful event or situation. Relaxation (R) states can be brought on with combinations of these 6 physical and mental techniques.

Sympathetic Nervous response:        
holding a posture, crouching

holding muscles in chronic tension

short, shallow, rapid, breaths

autonomic stress/anxiety

negative imagery, self talk, thoughts

stressed attention focused on negative aspect -or-
unproductive divided attention/multitasking

Parasympathetic response:

Stretching (Yoga, Pilates, Alexander)

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Deep Breathing (diaphragmatic)

Autogenic Training


Meditation- centered,  concentrated focus

Mindfulness- free, open focused perception/focus


Relaxation (R) states can either eliminate or bring on a type of feeling. It’s good to remember that with discipline we can control how we feel, and are not at the mercy of emotions, anxieties and fears that can bedevil us. Increased ability to attain these states can have a direct impact on mental and physical health, immune system functioning and longevity. They can also have effects and achieve goals beyond stress relief, such as changing mood or heightening sensation.
Negative                                Positive                                Transcendent
sleepy                                         energized                                 reverent/prayerful
disengaged                                optimistic                                deep mystery                                                           (spatial, attitudinal, somatic)
physical relaxation                   joyfulness                               awe/wonder
rested/refreshed                       thankful/loving                    timeless/boundless/
at ease/ calm                             aware, focused, clear                  infinite                                                             (release of tension)                  quiet, stillness
mindful acceptance


Is what I’m doing art? Can it be described as a relational, performance or social justice interactive piece? Depends on whom you ask. I’m to the point now where I’m trying to create therapeutic experiences for artists, and whatever framework they happen to take is fine with me. Spending time counseling other working artists made me realize that there is a particular need, and that my special understanding of artists’ problems and situations came from being one. I call what I’m doing Counseling for Artists for a variety of reasons, some of which are philosophical and some that are legal, because of what I don’t do, and because of what I am uniquely qualified to do. I’m interested in the interpretation of the piece and my practice by others, but more importantly how I can disseminate the idea that artists are important to society, need to be appreciated and supported in their endeavors, and deserve parity in access to wellness and mental health counseling. I’m looking for opportunities to share what I can do in a variety of settings, individuals, groups, organizations, and I’m willing to shape the interpretation or presentation of what it is that I do. There is a dearth of counseling available for people who identify as artists or are working creative professionals. Therapy and self awareness can create change within a person, helping them become their best and most desired self, and can lead to improved ability to make art or pursue their craft.

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